Since I have found myself quite busy lately I thought I would smash a few thoughts I have had together along with some conversations I have had with readers into one short consolidated post. I don't write a lot about image adjustments, manipulations, etc because for the most part I am lazy and like to avoid them in my own images. Especially for a lot of the subject matter that I now gravitate towards. Spicing things up just doesn't seem to do much for my current subject matter or my desired aesthetic - one of the reasons I still like film. A few of the simple posts that I have done lately about image adjustments seem to have been mildly informative for a least a few of you so I'll try a couple more.
So where does the combination of thoughts come in? We'll for this post I am going to use a JPEG as the original image vs. a RAW file. I made this choice based on a few conversations that I have had this summer with photographers that seem to be paranoid about applying any image manipulations to JPEG files. As I was searching though my library for an appropriate JPEG that really needed some TLC in terms of color and tone the first one I came across happened to be shot on my beloved beater camera - the Nikon D2H. As I have written a few times, this camera was very special in terms of it's absolute responsiveness, reliability, and the way it rendered tones strait out of the camera. In a lot of ways very film like - not from a DR point of view or a resolution point of view but in how the upper mids and highlights looked and the way colors rendered. It seems I am not the only crazy person to think so as I stumbled across this post recently written by Ming Thein.
On to the adjustments. Here is a screenshot (open in a new window for a full size screen) of the original JPEG as shot within Aperture 3.
The color and tone in this image definitely needs some serious attention so let's see where we can take this lowly old 8-bit JPEG file in Aperture 3. Note that the color rendition on your screen may not be quite accurate compared to what I see as I didn't bother to color manage the screen shots - I just assigned an sRGB profile - close enough for illustrative purposes.
- First up is color. The skin tone and overall color is way off and more importantly quite awful. I happen to be very familiar with the way the D2H renders caucasian skin in all of the various color modes and generally find it pleasing so I won't bother with using various color channel curves adjustments as this is definitely a problem with the color temperature of the light vs. my guesstimate manual WB setting on the camera. This was shot using poor man's kinoflos and the daylight rendering florescent tubes are nowhere near daylight - hmmmm. Let's just use the WB controls as the blue/orange and green/magenta axis are perfect for this. As you can see the WB adjustments are fairly massive - the original was way too orangy and way too green. I made it 1000K cooler and added 12 points of magenta. I like my caucasian skin sort of peachy with the shadow areas going towards a neutral brown. Maybe a bit too far but wanted to illustrate that as long as you don't start blowing individual color channels out the WB controls can be quite effective in adjusting color balance on JPEGs.
- Next up is the fact that this image was a hair under exposed maybe a half stop. That was intentional based on a practical hand held speed not because some blinkies were telling me that the specular reflections in the costume were "blown". In most cases specular reflections like those in the model's costume are better off "blown" as in a lot of circumstances lowering exposure to the point of no blinkies would result in an image that is extremely muddy. If you were shooting JPEGs the result would be useless - RAW would give you the ability to ratchet the shadows back up into usability but result in some really ugly noise along with some fairly rough tonal gradation. Specular reflections are supposed to render white. I chose to drag the midpoint in the curves adjustment up a bit to push the lower mids and midtones up. This is a significant adjustment in terms of magnitude.
- The model's face also needs some brightening as it's a tiny bit farther from the lights than some of her other parts. I added a new curves adjustment and brushed it into various areas of her face.
- Just for the heck of it I also used the highlights and shadow controls to bring up the shadows - not really necessary but wanted you to see that even a large adjustment as shown doesn't start to destroy the gradation in an 8-bit image.
Here is where I ended up…
Not too bad but let's take the curves a bit further, fine tune the color a bit, crush the blacks a bit for some added contrast and brighten the face up even more. All on a lowly JPEG…
After pushing it even further - not going for anything surreal. Just how it should look. Sort of natural…
Don't be afraid of the JPEG. While a nice fat RAW file will definitely have way more tonal information it won't necessarily make any major pictorial difference in most cases - especially in color unless massive manipulations are your intent. The other thing I wanted to stress yet again is that a little bit goes a long long way in terms of the visual qualities of an image. For most purposes a little bit is all that's needed and again - let your eye guide you instead of just the numbers or common internet inspired belief systems. For years I have used ACR on JPEG images just because it was very quick and easy to get 99% of the way to a final image. Especially when I was shooting medium format digital and the RAW images could take a minute just to load.